But my favorite has got to be "ancient Mariner," a term used to refer to a fielder who only "stoppeth one of three." Several players have earned this appellation, though there are those who claim that it was originally coined for Dick Stuart, the lead-footed first baseman whose performance on the field also earned him the nickname "Dr. Strangeglove."
I love baseball.
You know what else I love? Posting Chapter Six, that's what.
"You could just go to another doctor and do the same thing again," said Matthew.
"That wouldn't work," said Becker. "They'd just give me the same stuff Beecher gave me before. Isoniazid. I need the other stuff, streptomyacin. They don't give you that unless isoniazid doesn't work, like it doesn't work for what you've got."
"You could tell them you had a reaction to the first thing," said Matthew. "You broke out in a rash or something."
"No. They'd know I was lying. They'd think I was hoarding it to sell, the way Beecher did. Besides, it's not cheap, you know."
"Actually, I don't. I never used to get drugs from doctors."
Becker laughed shortly. "Not the kind I need."
"They sell them all over the damn place in Mexico, though, is what I've heard."
"You know as well as I do that I can't go to Mexico," she said. "You'd starve."
"I know that," he said. "I'm just thinking out loud."
Because she couldn't come up with anything either, she couldn't be too hard on him. "They say there's a black market; so where is it?" she asked.
Neither of them could think of anything. In the silence that ensued Becker heard a male voice raised in anger: Jake was back.
Later that day the phone rang again. When she answered it the voice that replied was one she had never heard before. "Hello," it trilled, cheerfully. "Is this Patricia Becker, the photographer?"
"Who is this?" asked Becker.
"Well, this is Marilyn Drywater, head graphics designer for Dulcinea, which is a weekly magazine for those with gothic sensibilities, and my boss, that's Linda Marks-Peltier, told me that you were the very best freelance photographer in her stable." The voice made a strange neighing sound and then laughed as if it had made a joke. "She said that I should call you and ask you if you could be persuaded to send us some of your fine photographs." The voice laughed again, and Becker wondered if she was being made fun of.
"You work for Linda Marks-Peltier?" she asked.
"That's right. You see, Dulcinea is an imprint of Zine-[eth] Publishing, and we like to share the wealth around here. And Linda seems to think that you count as wealth, Patricia."
Becker understood what had happened. Marks-Peltier's guilt at rejecting her photographs had not been absolved by that phone call; she had felt it necessary to throw more work Becker's way. It had not occurred to her, apparently, that a photographer of Becker's skill and experience would be offended at the suggestion that she work for a pseudo-goth periodical produced entirely by people over the age of thirty-five.
"I'm not interested," she said.
"Well, I'm surprised to hear that, Patricia. Because when I talked to Linda, she said that she'd had to reject your last batch of photographs, and it seemed to me that you might welcome an opportunity like this."
Becker was silent a moment, wondering if Marks-Peltier really had divulged this information. It was hard to believe that she would do such a thing; she talked too much, but she had always been very professional. Drywater pounced on Becker's tiny silence.
"I'm looking at Accelerator #67, which features your work almost exclusively. Do you know the pictures I'm talking about?"
"No." Why would she remember a handful of photographs out of the thousands she had sold in her career?
"There's one toward the back here -- here it is. It's a picture of an abandoned building. It's very simple, and yet it almost seems to tell a story. Maybe a story by Edgar Allan Poe," and there was that laugh again. What the hell was so funny?
"I am not --"
"But, why don't I just call back later, and give you some time to think about it," said Marilyn Drywater. Her voice had lost not the smallest particle of its cheeriness. Becker was about to hang up on her, but Drywater hung up first, leaving Becker to look at the phone in her hand with a vague sense of unease.
Jake was out in the hallway when she left her apartment later that day. It suddenly occurred to her to wonder if he or her next-door neighbor would know where to get black-market pharmaceuticals. She could readily imagine them taking vast quantities of illegal drugs: it might explain how they managed to tolerate each other. Or why Jake now grinned sycophantically whenever he caught sight of her.
"Heya!" he barked, in what was undoubtedly meant to be a cheerful tone of voice. He lumbered to his feet as she approached. "Steph got some of your mail on accident yesterday, Patricia! Guess I can't call you Harriet the Spy anymore." He thrust an envelope at her. Without looking at it she took it and stuffed it into her pocket.
"C'mon, I know you talk. I heard you. I won't bite or anything, Patricia."
Becker resisted the urge to cover her face with her hands. Silently she was chanting a few of the many mantras that had sustained her throughout her childhood and early adolescence: Don't look up and keep walking and act like you don't hear it. It was no more effective on Jake than it had been on her classmates in junior high school.
"Come on, I know you don't like me, but you don't have to give me the silent treatment. Come on. I just gave you your mail, didn't I?"
So that was what he wanted. This was a formula Becker could understand. They had reached the stairwell that led to the exit, and Becker looked Jake in the eye and said, "Thank you."
Jake looked as happy as a researcher who had just been accepted into ape society. "See, that wasn't so hard," he said. "Aren't you going to look at it?"
Becker pushed past him and went down the stairs.
She went to the park again, determined to figure out what had gone wrong with her last submission to Zine-q. Aimless, Marks-Peltier had said. What did that mean? How could a picture of an empty flowerpot be aimless? What was the story Marilyn Drywater had claimed to see in a picture of an empty house?
Becker inwardly scoffed at herself. She had allowed herself to believe that the end of her childhood had meant the end of being forced to bear up under other people's asinine interpretations of her personality. Her parents who had called her troubled, unfeeling, and gifted by turns, according to their mood and what they had expected of her that day; her classmates who had called her a wide assortment of vulgar things whenever her brother wasn't around; and once, when she was ten, the child psychologist her parents had taken her to with much shame and secrecy, who had called her withdrawn. "She'll grow out of it," the doctor had assured her parents. "She's just a late bloomer."
This incident was one of Becker's more vivid memories of childhood, a period in her life that was now little more than a featureless expanse, dimly recalled at best. "I will not grow out of it," she had said, furious at being discussed as if she were not even present. Her parents had stopped talking and looked at her with identically frigid expressions. It was at that moment that she realized that they hated her. They hated her for having forced them to endure the shame of bringing her to a psychologist, and they hated her for not having been fixed by him. They hated her for not being troubled or unfeeling or gifted, for not being a late bloomer who would grow out of it; they hated her refusing to accommodate any of their words for her.
Now it was the same thing all over again. Now it was Drywater and Marks-Peltier, Jake and Steph, all circling her as if she were a nut they wanted to crack. And Matthew: whatever he might say, he probably wanted to crack her too, wanted to expose her and then stuff her into a carapace of his own words.
She held her camera up to her eye and focused on the cement support of the bench she sat on. Did this tell a story? Was it aimless? Her mind reached out to the picture, trying to determine whether it felt different from the others somehow. There was the sunlight; there was the variable gray of the cement; and here was the camera in her hand, her finger poised to bring the shutter down. It was a photograph, and she was a photographer.
"Taking a picture?" asked a friendly voice at her shoulder.
Becker's mind withdrew from the picture. She dropped the camera and looked up at the person who had spoken. It was a man in sweatpants, smiling pleasantly. "What did you say?" she asked.
"I noticed you were taking a picture," he said.
"No no," said Becker. "That's not what you said. What did you say, exactly?"
"Um." The man's smile faltered for a moment. "I said, 'Taking a picture?' Am I bothering you?"
"Why would you ask a thing like that?" asked Becker. "If I have a camera up to my eye, and I'm about to close the shutter, why would you ask a thing like that?"
"Sorry to bother you," he mumbled.
"Wait, I'm serious," said Becker. "Is that code or something?" But he only turned and jogged away.
Becker watched him go, half tempted to follow him. He had mistaken her for one of them. Why?
"He knows something," she said to herself. "All of them, they all know something."
It occurred to her that perhaps this was what Jake wanted when he spoke to her -- some kind of countersign. For some reason, he did not understand that she did not know the countersign; he kept fishing for it with all his bloated, pointless words. Why was it so important to him that she respond correctly? Why hadn't he given up by this time?
She decided to try an experiment when she got back to her apartment building. Jake was still there, of course. "Heeeey, it's P'tricia," he said in a sedated voice as she passed by. "How you doing?"
Becker steeled herself. "Hello, Jake," she said. "How are you?"
Jake burst out laughing. "She talks, she talks!" he said. "You know, I think you're my new best friend, Patricia."
Becker decided she had been brave enough for one day, and hurried into her apartment.
* * *
"They all know something," she said to Matthew that night. "They know something I don't. Or I know something they don't."
"I think you know a lot they don't," said Matthew.
"What do I know?" she asked. Partially she was serious, but mostly she just wanted to hear him praise her.
"I don't know, you can cook," he said. "What were you like in high school?"
"That's a strange question," she said.
"The people I used to know, they never changed after high school. They still talked about the same things all the time and they were still worried about the same old bullshit, you know, like were people talking about them behind their backs and what were they saying and would this girl give them play, or something. They never grew up."
"So, I don't know, you seem different. Like you grew up. You don't give a shit what anyone else thinks and when something goes wrong you fix it. I always thought that was what it would be like to be a grownup. But it never seemed to happen. Real life."
Becker gave him another piece of gingerbread. "I lived with my parents," she said. "I couldn't be -- it was different then, because of that."
"I can't imagine you worrying about boys, or whatever. Or girls," he added.
"No," said Becker. "That wasn't important -- neither of them. None of it was. That wasn't real life."
"See, this is what I mean," said Matthew.
He was silent. Marshaling his thoughts, Becker supposed. She chewed on her gingerbread.
"You're like an arrow headed right for the target. You always knew it was there. I just always figured it would happen to me one day, but then it never did. I guess because I never made it. Or maybe most people never make it to real life. They just stay the same, like high school never ended. That's what I mean." His voice was triumphant. "You know something they don't."
Becker liked this explanation, but all she said was, "Maybe."
"I bet they treated you like shit in high school," he said.
"They would have," she said.
"Oh, you told me about that."
"Sometimes they did anyway. I didn't care. None of it was real."
"What is real?" he asked. Becker recognized the hopeful note in his voice.
"Whatever I say is real," she said.
"Am I real?"
Becker thought about this for a moment. "Well," she said eventually, "there you are."
* * *
Jake drove a red pickup truck with an American-flag decal stuck to the rear of the cab. Becker had seen him enter and exit it many times. She began to wonder now where he went when he drove away, down the twisting road that bordered the lake, touched the parking lot of the office building on the other side, and then veered off toward the downtown area. That was why, the next day, she was sitting in her car in the rear parking lot of the office building, watching Jake's pickup truck. When something goes wrong you fix it, Matthew had said.
It was several hours before Jake came out of the apartment building and got into his truck. When he slammed the door the sound traveled across the lake as clearly as a pistol shot.
Becker started her car. For a minute she heard nothing but the motor and the wind in the leafy branches of the trees that separated the parking lot from the road. Then she heard Jake drive by, and after fifteen or twenty seconds she followed him.
Becker was not at all surprised to learn that Jake was not a good driver. He drove too fast, and tended to veer to the left until he was in the middle of the road, at which point he would jerk back to the right and drive in a straight line for about half a minute before he started to veer again. This made Becker feel a little more relaxed. If he even managed to survive the trip to his destination, it seemed unlikely that he would notice her; he was having enough trouble staying on the road.
Eventually he careened into the downtown area, and here Becker felt still more relaxed, because now she was just one car among many. It was midday, and every street they traveled down was alive with men in suits and women in skirts, seated at small tables and eating salad out of plastic bowls. It occurred to Becker that they would make a good photograph. If she took it while driving it would be blurry, but that would be a good thing: her clients tended to shun pictures that featured people whose faces could be clearly discerned. She wondered if Marks-Peltier would call such a photograph aimless.
In time Jake got onto the highway. He stayed on it for about ten minutes, during which time he changed lanes frequently for no reason that Becker could discern, and appeared through the rear window to be either singing or cursing violently much of the time. He seemed equally likely to be doing either. When he finally exited, he did so with very little warning, and Becker was forced to cut across two lanes of traffic in order to follow him. She felt a spike of fear, certain that he would finally notice her, but if he did he gave no sign.
He had led her to a bleak industrial neighborhood that she had never visited before. There was no earthly reason that she would have: the streets were lined mainly with garages and parking lots, and car dealerships surrounded by chain-link fences from which faded plastic pennants flapped in the wind. Here and there she saw a squat corner grocery, its front almost totally obscured by boxes of oranges and plums, pyramids of anemic tomatoes, and bags of quick-lighting kindling made from extruded wood pulp pressed into the shape of a log. Becker shuddered to see them. With the clarity of a hallucination she could see the insides of these places, dark as caves and alive with flies, a soft layer of dust covering everything, a pot of coffee behind the counter boiling and boiling until it was as thick as clay.
When Jake finally stopped it was in front of what appeared to be a warehouse. There was parking in plenty, probably because many of the nearby buildings appeared to be abandoned. Even so, Jake managed to park crookedly. He jumped out of his truck, slamming the door behind him, and walked quickly into the warehouse.
Becker advanced cautiously, ready to stomp on the gas if Jake should reappear. Slowly she drifted past the warehouse, and noticed for the first time that there was a sign over the front entrance -- a light gray strip of wood with lettering of a slightly darker gray. Only when she had pulled alongside Jake's pickup truck was she finally able to make out what the sign said: Triple Ace Exterminators.
She felt it would be pressing her luck to stay any longer. She drove out of that depressing neighborhood even faster than Jake had compelled her to drive into it.
* * *
"If it's July, then that's what -- six months more you gave me, probably. Think of it that way," said Matthew.
"I can't stand it," said Becker. "I can't stand knowing that I can fix what you have, if only I could get that damn drug."
"What's the name of it?"
"Streptomyacin. It's just an antibiotic; why is it so hard to get my hands on? Maybe I could get a doctor to write me a prescription, if I paid him enough..."
"Whoa, whoa. They can throw you in jail for that," said Matthew.
"You die either way," said Becker. "I'm surprised you wouldn't want me to try."
"I don't want you to get thrown in jail," he said.
"Then they'd probably come in here and find you," she said. "They'd bring you to a hospital and cure you."
"I don't want them to cure me," said Matthew.
"Do you want to die? Or do you not care, like you said you wanted?"
"I don't want them to cure me. I want you to cure me. You know I don't want to die, I told you that already."
"You tell me a lot of things."
"Yeah, and I mean them. I don't expect you to believe that, though."
Becker felt too weary to get angry at him. "It doesn't matter now," she said.
In the silence that followed she found herself wishing that Jake would begin shouting, or that something would happen to take her mind off the thought of trying to get the smell of Matthew out of the half-bathroom after he died and she disposed of him. She would have to cut through the soldering somehow, wrench the hinges from the doorframe. She would need a circular saw and a crowbar, at the very least. And then she would have to scrub that nasty little room, bleach it, douse the walls with antiseptic spray -- and all just so she could hang the door again, shut it and lock it and never go in there again.
"There is one thing," said Matthew.
Becker decided to oblige him. "What?"
"I used to date this girl. Tammy Carroll."
"Is this relevant, Matthew?"
"Yeah, it is. Look, I used to date this girl, and she was hooked on pharmaceuticals. Not Demerol or painkillers like that, but the stuff they give kids with ADD. You know that stuff? Ritalin. She used to grind it up and snort it for the high."
"Where did she get it? Did she have a prescription?"
"Not for as much as she used to take. So she got other prescriptions. She would just go to a doctor and tell him that she was in town for a week and had lost her prescription, and he would always write her one no questions asked. When that one ran out she would just go to a different doctor and give him the same story."
"And it worked?" she asked.
"It sure did," said Matthew.
"Why didn't you tell me before? Here I've been -- I could have -- running through a hospital like some kind of maniac, and all those babies -- all those squirming, those -- like maggots -- I could have been arrested, you ungrateful shit!"
"I know," said Matthew. "I'm sorry. But I thought your way would work. It's not because -- it isn't that I don't want you to fix me, because I do. Because I do care, even if I wish I didn't, because wishing I didn't care is caring, and I can only not care if it doesn't matter to me whether I care or not, and I don't know how to do that, I mean it's practically impossible --"
"Sorry. I mean, when I -- first came here, I was jonesing so bad I thought I was going to die, so I was going to take your stuff and sell it and buy junk with it, that's what I had been reduced to. And I think I would have died without you, it's that simple. I think I'd be at the bottom of some scummy river, or in some shallow grave somewhere, or maybe they'd just find me and take me to the morgue and no one would ever know who I was. You saved me from that. And now -- even if you could get the stuff you need this way...."
There followed a silence so long that Becker was forced to say, "What? What?"
"You said you couldn't stand to think that you could fix me if you had the stuff you needed. Well, it's kind of the same for me. Only what I can't stand is that maybe after all this time it'll be me dragging you down to where I was six months ago, instead of you saving me from it. Does that make sense?"
"Jesus, Matthew --"
"I just figured it would be better if you didn't get involved in that whole civilization, is all," he said. "I'm sorry. You probably don't believe me, but I am."
To her surprise, Becker found that she did believe him. It was consistent with what she had experienced of his personality. He was a collection of established patterns, and below those patterns there were probably other more complex ones governing those things about him that seemed random. For some reason, this seemed revelatory.
"Tell me about her," said Becker.
"Her name was Tammy Carroll. She was a nice girl, but she was crazy. Not violent-crazy, not scary at all, but still, she was apeshit. But cute, and nice, like I said."
"She thought she was a dragon."
It was a meaningless sentence. "What? What does that mean?"
"It means she was crazy," said Matthew.
"I can tell that. What I mean is, how can a person think they're a dragon? Do you mean she really thought that? That it was a delusion? Or was she just pretending?"
"She really thought that, but I don't think it was a delusion, even though she was wrong," he said. "It's like -- believing in God is pretty crazy, believing that you know what God is like, but a lot of people do and we don't say they're crazy. Maybe you would, but society wouldn't."
"What's that supposed to mean, maybe I would?"
"I didn't mean you personally, I meant just a person, an individual."
An annoying thing about talking to Matthew was that he tended to pause from time to time, as if expecting some indication that he was supposed to continue. "And?" said Becker.
"And, that's the way Tammy was. She was mostly normal. But she believed all this stuff. She said she could feel where she had wings."
"But she couldn't have had wings," said Becker.
"She didn't. Of course."
This was namelessly upsetting. "I don't understand," she said. "Go back to the beginning."
"I'm not sure what the beginning is," said Matthew. "Um. How about this. You know some people feel like they were born the wrong, like a man'll say he's really a woman on the inside?"
"I've heard of that," said Becker. She squinted as she tried to remember where. "So Tammy felt like she was a dragon on the inside?"
"That's stupid," said Becker.
"Yeah, pretty much," said Matthew.
There was that pause again; or maybe he honestly thought he had explained everything satisfactorily. "So -- that can't be all," said Becker. "Why would a person -- how could she believe something like that? Didn't she look in the mirror?"
"Sure she did. She said that this body was a manifestation, that when she -- wait a second, let me remember this. She had this whole spiel she used to give me. I don't know if this is what she did it for or not, but I learned real quick not to ask her about this stuff, because she gave me this spiel. She said -- 'The body you see is but a manifestation of thought, not the truest reverberation of my Self,' with a capital s. 'I appear in this limited form because neither you nor I can bear the weight of too much Truth,' with a capital t. 'If I appear human to you, it must be because I have chosen the form of a human, or been assigned it by a power beyond my current understanding. I must be here to learn a lesson that will allow me to reverberate in harmony with light and love.' Also, she said that her eyes changed color according to her mood, but they always just looked brown to me."
"How do you remember all that crap?" asked Becker. That Matthew had been able to recite it seemed scarcely less incredible than the fact that Tammy had been able to believe it.
"I sure heard it enough. And parts of it are easy to remember -- learn a lesson, light and love," said Matthew. "Tammy said that when she looked in the mirror and then looked real quick away she sometimes saw something out of the corner of her eye. She said it was a glimpse of her true form visible behind the lifted veil of illusion."
"What did she say she looked like?"
"She told me once. She said that when she was a dragon she was forty feet long and had pearly-white scales. She said her eyes were like ice that was cracked on the inside. She said she dreamed about her previous existence, but she couldn't tell if it was on another planet or in some lost civilization here on Earth."
"Not in this solar system. Someplace light-years away. And in her true form she could teleport and read minds and stuff. Or she might have been from someplace here, like Agharta or Lemuria or --"
Becker cut him off. "Howcan you stand to spout that gibberish?" she demanded.
"I'm just telling you what Tammy told me. I didn't say I believe it."
"But doesn't it bother you? That she could believe something that stupid? That her whole life could be spent making up this -- mess, this ridiculous pile of lies, and then making herself believe them? Doesn't it embarrass you to repeat them?"
"I don't know," said Matthew. "I mean, it's silly and I don't believe it, and I think it's kind of funny, but she didn't hurt anyone. Harmless, that was the word for her. Plus, it made things interesting. She was always coming up with new ones, like she could only sleep in rooms that had windows facing the east, or she never got bitten by mosquitoes when she was wearing silver. She used to hiss when she got mad."
Becker felt the stirring of an unwelcome curiosity, prompted by she knew not what. Did she really want to know about Tammy Carroll, who could teleport and read minds and stuff? No, she did not. But at the same time she did.
"Did she tell everyone that she was a dragon?" she asked. "Or were you -- special?"
"She didn't tell everyone," said Matthew. "But she had to tell me after we were seeing each other for a while, because she had all these quirks. She said she couldn't ever lie on her back because she could feel her wings underneath her. So when we, ah -- she had to be on top."
"So her wings didn't get hurt."
"How long did you --" Becker paused, groping for the appropriate phrase. "How long did you date her?"
"A year? A little more than a year."
"Well, it depends what you count as dating, but sure, a year, fourteen months. I told you, she was a nice girl. It wasn't that big a deal, the dragon thing."
"Why did she stay with you? If you didn't believe that her form was a manifestation?" Becker had no idea why this was important, but very suddenly it was.
"Well," said Matthew, and paused. "I mean, she wasn't Catholic, and I stayed with her. But -- she never asked me if I believed her. I think she knew what I would say. Even though, if she did ask me, I probably would've lied."
"To stay with her."
"Yeah, I guess."
"But you didn't answer my question. If she knew you didn't believe her, if she knew you didn't buy it, why did she want to stay with you?"
"That's a good question," said Matthew. "I don't know why she stayed with me."
Matthew thought little enough of himself that Becker found this very plausible. She was satisfied, then.
"Tell me about the drugs," she said.
"Tammy got depressed a lot," said Matthew. "So she needed something. Otherwise she just laid in bed all day and said her eyes wouldn't focus and her head hurt. She had a prescription for Paxil that she got from a doctor, but that wasn't enough."
"It's an antidepressant. But it wasn't enough. So she started messing around with other stuff, antianxiety medication, like Valium."
Becker hadn't known that there was such a thing as antianxiety medication. Deliberately making yourself less anxious seemed dangerous to her: there was so much to be anxious about, after all.
"She found this stuff called Xanax that she liked. But sometimes that wasn't enough either. She said it was hard for her, being trapped in the wrong body. She never felt really comfortable, and she needed something to take her away from that. But her drug of choice was different than mine. She knew someone who showed her how to snort Ritalin, and she liked that a lot better."
"You snort it?"
"You're not supposed to, but if you grind it up and snort it -- it's a pill -- instead of just swallowing it, you get a kind of a buzz. Tammy liked it. I tried it once or twice but it wasn't my thing. Tammy said it reminded her of flying."
Becker exhaled contemptuously. "And that's how she got those things? She would tell a doctor she had lost her medication and needed a new prescription?"
"Yeah, and it worked. It freaked me out how well it worked. I thought they were supposed to check that stuff somehow, but they just don't bother. So I thought..."
He didn't actually say what he had thought; he let the sentence hang there.
"What did you think?" asked Becker, although she already knew. She was irritated with him suddenly.
"I thought maybe you could get the drugs you need that way."
"I need? You're the one who'll die without them," said Becker.
"You know what I mean," said Matthew.
"Why did you and Tammy stop seeing each other?" she asked.
"What?" said Matthew.
"You heard me."
"Yeah, I heard you, but --"
"And why didn't you ever mention her before? You talked about every other damn thing that's ever happened to you in your life, why didn't you ever mention Tammy? You dated her for over a year."
"I didn't think you'd want to hear about her," he said.
"I don't know, it's just a feeling I got. See, I told you about her, and now you're pissed."
"If I am, it's not because of Tammy," said Becker. Then she scowled, wondering if that was true.
"Okay," said Matthew.
"We broke up when I asked her to marry me."
"Marry you? You were almost married and never told me?"
"See, that's just it, though. I wasn't nearly married. I wasn't anywhere close to being married, because she said no. She was nice about it, but after that there was always that between us, so what can you do? We had to break up. That kind of sucked."
"You -- why did you want to marry her, if she was crazy like you say?"
Matthew laughed. "You always do that," he said.
"What? What do I do?"
"You ask those questions. Like, Why did you want to marry Tammy? It makes me feel stupid to say I don't know, so I have to think about it. And I'm not sure I've ever actually done that before."
"How can you not think about something like that?"
"Oh, I don't know. I don't think about things the same way you do. I've never been able to think more than like two weeks ahead. And I liked her. We hardly ever got on each other's nerves, which is saying a lot when you're dating someone. She was less annoying than anyone else I've ever dated. I don't know if she felt the same way about me, but something made her want to stick around."
"And, I figured it would be better to be with someone who didn't get on my nerves than to be alone for the rest of my life. You have to understand, I was fucked up a lot of the time. Not that I didn't like her, because I did. I probably gave it as much thought as most people do."
"You don't like people much, do you?"
Becker scowled automatically; she didn't like being startled. "I don't mind them if they don't bother me," she said.
"Ever wonder why so many people get married? Your parents, for example? That's just an example. Ever wonder -- I guess, what people see in each other, that they'd want to get up there and say yes, I want to spend the rest of my life in the same room with him? Or in the same room with her?"
"Yes," said Becker. "What makes them want to do it? Do you wonder that too?"
"It must be because most people don't give it enough thought. Maybe no one gives it enough thought, and some people are just lucky. Because you do see those old couples, you know, holding hands? That always gets me. But mostly -- stupid. Didn't think ahead, like me. Just didn't want to be alone, afraid to get sick and die and have no one give a shit. It's -- it's horrible."
"You were afraid?" she asked.
"I didn't think I was, but I was. Of a lot of stuff. Getting sick, getting old, dying, being alone....Yeah."
"Going to Hell?"
"And that's why you asked Tammy to marry you."
"If there even was a reason," said Matthew. Then, for no reason Becker could see: "Words are stupid sometimes."
"What happened to her?" asked Becker.
"I don't know. I could have found out. I wanted to know but I didn't want to know. And after a while it sort of didn't matter anymore. This was three or four years ago. Four, I guess."
"Do you think about her?"
"Sure. I think about everything. The other day I was thinking about this book we had to read in high school --"
"Do you miss her?" asked Becker.
"I don't even know anymore," said Matthew.
* * *
Later that evening Becker went for a walk around the stinking lake. The urge to take a walk was not one she could ever remember having felt before, and so she took her camera with her, to distract herself. There was nothing to photograph that she had not photographed before. She felt alien and brimful of loathsome compromise.
Sometimes she felt she did not understand Matthew at all. That she even wondered whether she did was distressing. She never wondered whether she understood Jake, or Linda Marks-Peltier, or the imitation Tiffany lamp in her living room, the one with a shade of green and purple glass that looked like peacock feathers. What was this business of understanding, anyway? Things simply were or were not, regardless of what you thought of them.
When they were young Becker's brother had kept fancy mice. There had been droves of them, in four tanks in the basement, and he had named them all. Swen, Oddbjorn, Per, and Lars; Tinker and Evers and Chance; Iphiginia, Electra, Clytemnestra, and Orestes; Sherlock and Mycroft; Misty and Murmur and Puck and Twinkle and Ruby and Kierkegaard and a whole host of others. They had died in droves too, and Becker's brother had mourned each one and buried it with great ceremony, raining tears on its little grave. In time the flowerbeds were enriched by dozens of rodent corpses, but though their parents found this distasteful they said nothing.
Walking, Becker recalled watching her brother kneel among the marigolds, bathed in the sanctity of his grief. Here was yet another mystery. He had reared this grief himself, bred it and whelped it and mowed lawns to pay for its food, all the time knowing what would come of it. And when he rose from his knees she knew he would go down into the basement to feed and caress and croon over dozens of other corpses-to-be. He would stick his face right into the tank sometimes, to see them up close.
Matthew was not much like a mouse, though. He talked, for one thing. He had thoughts and desires that even he did not seem to understand. How was it possible to have thoughts without understanding them? Wasn't that a contradiction? Wasn't it equally possible that everything he said was somehow calculated to deceive her?
Becker walked all the way around the lake. As she neared the door to her building Steph's apartment went dark, and as she was about to open the door Jake burst out, having evidently run all the way down the stairs. The door flew open and Becker barely had time to step out of the way before it crashed against the wall.
"Shit! Sorry, Trish," said Jake, who was breathing more heavily than usual. "What you doing out here? Taking a walk? Shit, it stinks out here."
"You've been leaving dead rats outside my door," said Becker.
"You've been leaving dead rats outside my door."
"No, that must have been her," said Jake, pointing toward the sky. Becker assumed that he meant Steph, though she wouldn't have been entirely surprised to learn that he was referring to some deity, or some fantastic winged creature like Tammy Carroll.
"She's been leaving dead rats outside my door, then."
"But she's been getting them from you."
"Yeah, I guess." Jake looked sheepish. "She asked me for them."
"She asked you for dead rats."
"How'd you know she got them from me? Are you a superspy after all? Hey, is Patricia your real name?"
"She asked you for dead rats and you gave them to her?"
"Why not? How'd you know, though?"
"Didn't you ask her why she wanted dead rats?"
"Why would I want to know? I knew it would be for something fucked up. What's it matter?"
"It matters because she's been leaving them on my doorstep. I don't know why she's been leaving them on my doorstep, but she has."
"Shit, I'm sorry about that, Patricia, Ms. Patricia Becker, Apartment 3E," Jake said vaguely, looking up at the sky whence the dead rats had appeared. Becker wondered if he was drunk. "Want me to talk to her about it?"
"I want you to stop giving her dead rats," said Becker. "Talk to her if you feel like it." She pushed past him to open the door.
"You take things too seriously, Patricia," he called after her as she went up the stairs. "You should smile more, people would like you better."
"God forbid," Becker muttered to herself. Still, she almost laughed, wondering what Matthew would have to say about this conversation.